Wells Cathedral Pilgrimage in a Day

SW England, 1 day, 1-Day Cathedral

Wells Cathedral Pilgrimage in a Day

Linear route from Glastonbury Abbey to Wells Cathedral (or vice versa) 1 day walking, 2 days in total for seeing all holy places at either end, in both Glastonbury and Wells – 12 miles – green line on Google Map, and pink line for the St Bride’s Mound extension. 

Circular route from St Cuthbert’s Church – Croscombe – Wells Cathedral – 1 day, 7 miles – burgundy line on Google Map below. For photos of this route, see Glastonbury Water Way.

These routes were devised by Chris Sheldrake, and Guy Hayward, co-author of ‘Britain’s Pilgrim Places‘.

The wonderfully researched description below of the Wells to Glastonbury route results from a collaboration between Prof Kathryn Barush (see her bio at bottom) and BPT’s Guy Hayward. The rest of this collaboration can be viewed here, and refers to places on the Glastonbury Pilgrimage in a Day.

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This pilgrimage reveals the richness of British culture in a place of deep mystery.  We will encounter Green Men (and a lady), healing waters, fire-breathing dragons, and angels in high places.  Follow the links for insider looks at artefacts, songs, and even a 360 tour.

The route from Wells to Glastonbury centers around two things:  healing water, and the rich overlay of traditions and stories.  It is an excellent opportunity for inter-religious dialogue as we introduce spaces of encounter that are layered with significance that cross and transcend religious, cultural, and even temporal boundaries.

St Nicholas’, West Pennard

St. Nicholas’s Church, West Pennard

The pilgrim entering the west door is welcomed by three angels on the frieze above;  see how many winged messengers you can spot here!  The chapel was dedicated to St. Nicholas by 1210.  There are some fine architectural features within, including a barrel-vaulted nave roof and a 16th-century parapet of pierced quatrefoils and tablet flowers.  On your way out, pause to look at the cross in the churchyard with its carvings of the emblems of the crucifixion, and see if you can find the initials of Abbott Richard Bere (1493-1524).

West Pennard Church and Tor in Alignment

St. Peter’s, North Wootton

As you approach North Wootton, have a look at the funky earthworks, evidence of prehistory.

The church is apparently on the Michael and Mary ley line, an energy current line from Cornwall. Are these the telluric currents that science has discovered? Sit in silence and feel the peace, or, like British landscape painter Luke Piper, see if you feel compelled to create an artwork.

The building itself probably dates from the 12th century, with a nave that was remodelled in the mid-to-late 14th century (with the addition of windows which were inserted on the south porch), and underwent an extensive eighteenth-century re-modelling.

Before you leave, glance at the wonky leaning Saxon font, and maybe touch it too…!

Approaching North Wootton, Earthworks on right

St Peter’s Church, North Wootton

North Wootton Font

St Peter’s Church, North Wootton

Worminster Down Hillfort

Allegedly the home of a dragon!  According to the story the dragon was dispatched by the Bishop of Wells, but with his dying breath the dragon cursed the surrounding area by saying he will come back every 50 years and, if not slain, would devour a maiden. So every so often the locals parade a dragon through the streets and enact a slaying for the good of all… There is a Worminster ‘Worm’ (Dragon) in a floor tile of the Bishop’s Palace of Wells, and a figure of a monk slaying a dragon in the stair of the Chapter House. Remember this for when you arrive there.

Figure of a monk slaying a dragon in the stair of the Chapter House

‘Mount Joy’ at first seeing Wells Cathedral in distance coming down from Worminster Down. The medieval world-wide tradition was to fall to your knees and weep with joy at this moment.

View of Beginning and End

See Glastonbury Tor and Wells Cathedral from here, and St Cuthbert’s Church. We heard the lines from TS Eliot’s poem ‘Little Gidding’ from Four Quartets in our labyrinth meditation at St. John’s earlier on our pilgrimage.  Perhaps we can remember them again as we near journey’s end.

As you read this excerpt from the poem, recall the fire of the dragons that we encountered at Worminster and Wells, the oft-hidden water that brought renewal and healing (and will do at Wells, up next), the references to Avalon (Welsh for Ynys Afallon, or the Island of Apples), the portal in St. Michael’s tower.  Soon we will end our journey in the midst of the roses of the Bishop’s Palace gardens.

‘What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.’

Moat around Wells Bishop’s Palace

Wells of Wells Cathedral

St Andrew’s Well, Wells

Market Square Well, Wells

Holy Wells of Wells

St Andrew’s Well, the holy pond around which all of Wells was built, including the cathedral, is only accessible via the Bishop’s Palace Gardens.  An underground river runs under, which might explain why there is so much water on display, feeding this magnificent garden full of flowers. Put your hand in and feel connected to this vast body of water.  A plaque nearby connects the water, which was used in liturgies at Wells, to the ‘river of life’ in the Book of Revelations: ‘Then the angel showed me the river of life, rising from the throne of God and flowing crystal clear.  Down the middle of the city street, on either side of the river, were the trees of life, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nation’.

Thomas Ken (or Kenn), who held the Bishopric from 1685-1690 is said to have composed the lyrics to two hymns in the grotto on the terrace of the Palace Gardens.  They are perfect for pilgrimage, meant to be sung to mark the opening and the closing of the day:  ‘Awake, my soul, and with the sun,’ and ‘Glory to Thee, my God, this night.’  They are linked here with musical settings by François Bartholemon and Thomas Tallis.

The Pilgrim Sculpture, Bishop’s Palace Gardens

Wells Cathedral West Front

Wells Cathedral Front

Wells Cathedral

Wells Cathedral

Enter at the West Door after marvelling at the extraordinary West Front on the outside, with 300 saints carved into the stone face.  As you walk west to East toward the altar, you are on a pilgrimage within a pilgrimage, progressing East, toward Jerusalem.  There is also a processional path behind the altar towards the Lady Chapel.  Our virtual pilgrims can view the chapel itself in 360 degrees here.

The Nave awaits you and its amazing scissor arches. Watch the oldest clock face in the world with its revolving jousting knights and Quarter Jack marking the hours with his banging heels.  It also marks the current phase of the moon (remember our Yeats poem fragment earlier about the tower).

Wells Cathedral Nave

Astronomical Clock (yellow bit in middle is showing phase of the moon)

The Chapter House is a place to lie down and be awestruck by the beauty of the circular ceiling vaulting, perhaps whisper to your companion across this ancient speaking room. Make sure you acknowledge the incredible dedication evidenced by the Needlepoint Lace opposite the Lady Chapel which took over 8000 hours to make. The Jesse Window in the Quire is a green tree-like wonder. Then wander outside to the Cloisters for the dipping hole in the middle, with steps leading down to it, where you can see and hear the underground river through the railings around the tombs. And then head to the Camery Garden to look through the squint revealing St Andrew’s Well.

Jesse Window

Wells Cathedral East Apse

Wells Cloister

Dipping Hole, Wells Cloisters

If you have a toothache, you’ve come to the right place.  For centuries pilgrims have been flocking to the tomb of William Bytton, Bishop from 1267-1274…and what’s in a name?  In the twentieth century, the superintendent of restoration removed the stone lid of his tomb and was surprised to find a perfect set of teeth ‘of which any lady might have been proud, in the jaw of the bishop’.  Even more surprisingly, with the remains were an inscribed plate which testified his death in extreme old age.  Look out, too, for the medieval capital showing a head with a toothache!

Medieval capital of Wells Cathedral showing a head with a toothache

Look out for the several Green Men and the Green Lady of Wells.  These ancient foliate heads were named by Lady Raglan a hundred years ago, but the iconography is much older, with foliate masks appearing in Roman art as early as the first century AD but growing in popularity in the second century.  With their mischievous expressions they have been adopted as counter-cultural icons.  They have come to represent rebirth and the renewal of spring time, and are associated with May morning festivals where human faces peep from beneath their leafy covers, parading as Jack-in-the-Green.

Whatever their origins and meanings, in this time of ecological crisis, these Green People do well to remind us of the spirit of nature, the importance of environmental stewardship and justice, and our relationship to the other-than-human.  As the song Jack-in-the-Green by Jethro Tull imagines, there is stills some hope:

Jack, do you never sleep
does the green still run deep in your heart?
Or will these changing times,
motorways, powerlines,
keep us apart?
Well, I don’t think so
I saw some grass growing through the pavements today.

From Songs from the Wood, 1977.

St. Cuthbert’s Church

Look out for the tower on the horizon, emerging from the trees, which Simon Jenkins calls ‘the climactic example of the “vertical” group of Somerset towers, designed not as a stack of separate stages but as a soaring unity’.  A remarkable collection of late medieval painted sculpture was rediscovered during renovations in 1840.  They have been moved to safe storage to prevent fading and damage, so our virtual pilgrims and those on foot alike can take a closer look here.

The ceiling is a riot of sculpted, painted angels, rosettes, and symbols of heraldry restored in the sixties. Lie down in the nave and soak in the colour.

Green Man in porch of St Cuthbert’s Church, Wells


St Cuthbert’s Church, Wells

Vicar’s Close

A perfectly intact medieval street where the choral lay clerks live.  Virtual pilgrims can take a stroll here.

Vicar’s Close

Chapter House nearby Vicar’s Close

Although she has been on pilgrimages to Glastonbury in the past, Kathryn is guest-authoring this journey virtually and from afar; here are some California roses to stand in for the ones at the Bishop’s Palace Gardens!

Guest collaborator:

Kathryn Barush is Assoc. Professor and Thomas E. Bertelsen Jr. Chair of Art History and Religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California and is the author of the monograph Art and the Sacred Journey in Britain, 1790-1850 (London: Routledge).  She received a D.Phil. from Wadham College, University of Oxford in 2012 and has held positions as Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and as curatorial assistant at the Yale University Center for British Art.  Shifting the focus to the present day, Dr. Barush’s current book project (Imaging Pilgrimage, Bloomsbury) explores the transfer of ‘spirit’ from sites to representations through a critical examination of contemporary art (including assemblages of souvenirs, built environments, and reconstructions of sacred sites) created after or during pilgrimages with the intent to engender the experience for others. She is also an avid walker and has led a group of graduate student pilgrims along the Camino Ignaciano in Spain.  Find her on Twitter @pilgrim_travels

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  1. John Widdowson

    We (17 in the party) walked from Wells to Glastonbury on a cold but sunny February day. A lovely walk and surprisingly dry underfoot given the flooding of the Somerset Levels earlier in the year. The toughest bit was the climb and descent of Warminster Down, mainly due to a muddy path ( the only one). Great views of Wells and Glastonbury Tor. We had a warm welcome at North Wootton where the church was opened for us. Unfortunately the churches at West Pennard and Glastonbury were locked.

    We also walked the circular from Wells to Croscombe on a previous day. The church was opened by arrangement. Another interesting half day walk.


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